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This Week's 5 Must-Read Stories From NPR Books


1. The Healing Power Of Stories

Cambodian author Vaddey Ratner was just a child when the Khmer Rouge came banging on the doors of her aristocratic family's compound in Phnom Penh. She's fictionalized that experience — and the years of hardship that followed — in her new novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan.

She survived — and so does her heroine, Raami — in part because she remembered the poems and stories her father loved.

"I wanted to tell a larger story about hope and survival, the unbreakable bonds of family," Ratner says, in an emotionally charged interview with NPR's Lynn Neary. "And I actually want to tell a story about the power of storytelling to transcend suffering. Because it was the stories that saved me, the stories, the poetry that my father left behind."

2. South Africa Takes The Gold

Poetry takes center stage again as we celebrate the winner of Morning Edition's Poetry Games. South Africa's Mbali Vilakazi claimed the gold with listener-favorite "Swim Your Own Race," inspired by swimmer Natalie du Toit, who lost a leg as a teenager and, in 2008, became the first amputee to compete in the Olympics.

"It's not about what happens to you, it's about how quickly you can get up," Vilakazi says.

Here's the last stanza of Vilakazi's winning poem, to tempt your poetry taste buds:

In no ordinary silence
do we watch
our own feared hopes waking
and now, breathless
in awe --
you are unforgettable.

3. Picture This

If listening to poetry is not to your taste, there's a feast for the eyes in our graphic-novel roundup. Oliver Sava of The A.V. Club picks five of his favorites for a great summer-reading adventure.

Brandon Graham's King City is a science fiction kung fu epic that combines big-screen action with slacker comedy in a sprawling tale about a thief and his superpowered cat. On a more realistic note, Unterzakhn is a "bleak yet touching" tale of two sisters in early 20th century New York. Esther and Fanya take very different paths in life, but they can't stop those paths from intersecting.

The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist takes a comprehensive look at the evolution of a revered cartoonist, combining unpublished material like holiday cards and difficult-to-find early work like his very first comic, Lloyd Llewellyn. Meanwhile, Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? is the long-awaited sequel to her 2006 memoir, Fun Home. The new work is a "heartwarming but never schmaltzy" look at Bechdel's complicated relationship with her mother.

And finally, Sava recommends you check out Jim Henson's Tale of Sand, an adaptation of an unpublished screenplay by Henson and his writing partner Jerry Juhl. He says, "It's a remarkable example of the type of visual stimulation that only graphic novels can achieve."

4. The Shock Of A Frozen Leg Of Lamb

Did you love Roald Dahl's books as a kid? I sure did — I wore the covers off of Danny the Champion of the World and James and the Giant Peach. Not to mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which fell apart altogether under repeated readings. And then I discovered Dahl's adult works — oh my.

Author D.W. Gibson found himself in a similar situation. His fifth-grade teacher assigned Charlie. "I had no reason to assume a teacher-approved writer would deliver anything but a fantastical children's story," he writes in this week's PG-13: Risky Reads.

And then he went to the library and checked out Dahl's short-story collection Someone Like You. "I was naive," he writes, "and Roald Dahl took advantage — blindsiding me rather unkindly" with a story about a woman who brains her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and then calmly serves up the evidence to the investigating detective.

5. Are You A Psychopath? Sure About That?

Now, I've complained before that the books in our My Guilty Pleasure series aren't all that guilt-inducing, and at first glance Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test seems like a pretty nutritious choice. But then commentator and author Carol Rifka Brunt subverts my cranky expectations.

Brunt writes that pop psychology books are her guilty pleasure. Sure, they illuminate the workings of the human mind, but that's not what she's interested in. "The guilt is in the fact that even though I say 'humans,' what I really mean is 'me.' What I'm really interested in is the way I think. It's a total indulgence."

That's not all: "I read The Psychopath Test not just to learn about people who suffer the disorder," she writes, "but to compare myself with them." Aha! Now that's a guilty pleasure we can all relish.

So, that's five, but I can't resist adding a bonus read for everyone out there who (like me) has a stack of romances under the bed: Karen Grigsby Bates' excellent piece on ethnic romance writers. Ethnic romances have been around for decades — Newsweek editor Elsie B. Washington, widely considered the mother of African-American romance, penned Entwined Destinies under the name Rosalind Welles back in 1980. But it's taken a long time for the entwined couples on the book covers to start looking more like the women who read them. Now, however, ethnic romances are a growing part of the $1 billion romance market.

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